In a short story from 1998, “My Father’s Greatcoat”, Stevie Davies asks a question: “How did he become so maternal , my Forces father?” (A Second Skin, p.97). The greatcoat is viewed as a symbol of comfort, a secure and fixed point amidst endless “postings” from Egypt to Germany. In her latest novel, Into Suez, Stevie Davies returns to this world of movement and “postings”, to Egypt, into the canal of imperialistic dreams, which the novel reads as a metaphor for communication between people and countries.
The term “postings” suggests many things within this novel. It indicates the movement/transporting of the Roberts family from Wales to Egypt. On a deeper level, it recognizes a life in flux, how all the characters within the novel are in search of a place/post to root themselves; a quest deeply felt by the volatile Mona Serafin-Jacobs, whose married name unites the unpositioned worlds of Palestine and Israel. At a subterranean level, it is a sign of Hermes, god of communication, who carries postings/communications between the living and the dead. Ailsa Roberts, living her life between birth and death, peace and war, witnesses this as she delivers a baby after visiting the Egyptian tombs of death.
In one of her scholarly works of criticism, The Idea of Woman in Renaissance Literature, Stevie Davies traces the myth of Eleusis and how it became the field of creativity for Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. Demeter’s loss of Persephone offered a fertile myth for Renaissance writers, a deep image which could be eternally re-worked in contemporary stories. The myth became a “greatcoat” of motherhood in which male writers could find security. In the Rites of Eleusis, it is Hermes who guides the initiates between dark and light, as he did when he carried posts from Demeter into Hades in search of Persephone. Subconsciously, it is this myth which inspires Stevie Davies within Into Suez. The novel splits into a double narrative in which Egypt is experienced first through the mother-daughter bond of Ailsa-Nia and again as Nia, the lost daughter, strives to embrace memories of her mother. Stevie Davies, writing with the quicksilver skill of Hermes, fuses a deep psychological narrative and a finely researched historical narrative. Like the great writers of the past, she spins her novel, taking the mothering myths into female hands.
Into Suez, is a dazzling novel. It poses a great question: how do you maternalize patriarchy? Can the Father learn from the wisdom of the Mother? And all of this is investigated through animated narrative, exact description and convincing characterization. Stevie Davies writes in the tradition of May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend-Warner and H.D.: she combines strong intellectual characterisation with mythical narrative and intense psychological awareness.
This is a novel of subtlety. And such should be realised. Some of the novel’s recent reviewers have focused on the hard-hitting nature of the language inside Into Suez. And yes, that is true. Stevie Davies does not avoid the language of patriarchy: its violence and racism. But this is a finely crafted novel and the brutality of war is balanced by gentle, lyrical writing. There is one point of crisis when Nia is building sandcastles (a symbol of Empire if ever there was one). Her father is speaking:
“And you know there is plenty of sand, “ he added, “ Out there. And most of it in my ears and nose and mouth.”
“Orifices!” said Nia.
“Where did you get that?”…
“Mami,” said it.
He had no answer to that.
Nia stops the mouth of Joe with the mind and language of her mother. Into Suez is written by an author who desires to close the mouth of the fatherland and its endless wars. And this can only be done by women who dare to speak, by those who take off the scold's bridle and dare to dissent. Into Suez is a courageous novel, a work full of heart, one which touches the pulse of the common reader, reminding her or him that literature is written to change perceptions.